Stephen Schwartz Leads LI Masterclass to Produce His Broadway Hits

Stephen Schwartz cropped
Stephen Schwartz
Courtesy Polk & Co.

It isn’t often that young students are given the opportunity to work on a production of Broadway hits Pippin and Godspell with the composer who wrote them, but that’s exactly what the Long Island Musical Theatre Festival (LIMTF) is offering this summer.

The LIMTF 2022 Masterclass Guest Artist is none other than Stephen Schwartz, who also composed Broadway smash hit Wicked and contributed lyrics to the beloved film soundtracks of Disney’s Enchanted, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt. With guidance from Schwartz, director Nathan Brewer, music director Steven Altinel and choreographer Megan Gerlach, college and high school students will present both a music revue and a fully staged production of Pippin with a professional orchestra. Likewise, middle schoolers will take what they learn from Schwartz, camp director Michelle Mallardi and music director Craig Coyle to produce a full Godspell Jr. production in just 10 days.

As a New York City resident who grew up in Nassau County, Schwartz is looking forward to spending time on Long Island this summer, both in Garden City for the Masterclass program and further east visiting his children, Jessica and (Bay Street Theater Artistic Director) Scott Schwartz, in Sag Harbor.

“It gives me an excuse to be out there (on Long Island) in the first place and do a little visiting,” Stephen Schwartz says. “I’ve spent a lot of time out (on the East End) at the cool museums and the programs that they have out there, but it’s mostly been through my family that I’m familiar with that part of Long Island.”

We had the pleasure of interviewing Schwartz about his upcoming LIMTF Masterclass and the lessons he’d like to teach these young students. 

How did this collaboration with the LIMTF come about?

I became aware of organization several years ago. They did a production for a couple of months with their students of The Hunchback of Notre Dame — a musical that I did lyrics for and has music by Alan Menken. So I knew of them, and also I grew up on Long Island. My kids still live there, my parents live there, in fact, my kids are out where Dan’s Papers is, there in Sag Harbor. So yeah, I knew about them, and then they reached out to me this year to say that they’re doing two of my shows with their students, and was it possible that I could participate by doing a Masterclass with the kids, et cetera, which I was happy to do. It’s not only a chance to work with young people who are interested in musical theater, which I like to do, but it gives me an excuse to visit my family.

Why do you think Pippin was selected for the college/high school production?

The story of the show is one that young people identify with, since it’s basically about a young man who’s trying to figure out what to do with his life, and there are conflicts with his family, with his father, et cetera. There’s also a kind of dark edge to the show, which I think speaks to young people. It’s always been a show that’s popular with students, both to see and perform, so I assume that’s one of the reasons that it was chosen.

What makes Godspell an ideal intermediate intensive for middle school students?

Godspell is generally done with a young cast. Even when it’s done professionally, it’s generally done with young people who are often doing their first professional job when they’re doing the show, so they seem like two really good choices for this kind of an organization.

Why is theater education important to you?

I tend to do a lot of work with young people. I’m a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; I go back there pretty much every year and do some master classes, and I’ve also done that at other schools around the country. It’s just something I enjoy doing when I have time. And, as I said, this had the added attraction of basically being, if not actually being, in my hometown, my home county, since I grew up on Long Island in Nassau County. 

Did you have the opportunity to participate in programs like the LIMTF when you were starting out?

They really didn’t exist when I was starting out, but I went to Mineola High School on Long Island, and they had, particularly for a public school, a very strong arts component. There was a good drama program. There were music programs, and from time to time there were concerts, which I would participate in. So I was a little fortunate in that regard, but when I was growing up, the idea of musical theater training programs didn’t really exist — at least none that I knew. And that’s another reason why I’m supportive of programs like the Long Island Musical Theatre Festival and was happy to be a participant. I think it’ll be fun. I’m looking forward to it.

What’s one lesson you learned early on that helped guide you throughout your career?

There have been a few. Musical theater is an extremely collaborative art form, if you want to call it that, not just as a writer, but working with the director, the choreographer, the designers, the cast — everybody contributes when it’s working at its best. There’s a whole gestalt thing happening where the talents of everybody involved are being drawn upon, but learning to collaborate is tricky and doesn’t necessarily come naturally. I think that’s something I learned about during my career and try to talk to the kids about when I’m working with them.

What’s a lesson you wish you’d learned sooner, which you now plan to teach your students?

I think — and this is something that everybody says, but particularly coming out of a pandemic I think it’s a good lesson to remember, which is — to enjoy the process and be thankful for getting to do something that we really enjoy doing, and obviously you want to do the best you can, but to be a little less concerned about the result and more about the process of getting there.

Looking back on your most successful songs and soundtracks, would you say there’s a secret formula to your success?

Really not at all. Things always surprise me, but I’ve always just tried to trust my own instincts and write what I would like to hear and what I would like to see, and hope that it resonates for enough people. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worked often enough for me. I’ve been happy to have some success, but basically I just try to tell the story that I’m trying to tell with a particular show and write it in the way I think I’d like to hear it if I was the audience instead of the writer. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I really think what the Long Island Musical Theatre Festival is doing is terrific — giving young people who are aspiring to be in musical theater these kinds of opportunities, so I’m very happy to be supporting that.

The Pippin music revue is on Friday, August 5 and Mainstage productions are on the nights of Friday, August 12 and Saturday, August 13. Godspell Jr. will be presented at noon on Saturday, August 13. To learn more about the Long Island Musical Theatre, visit limtf.org.

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